Oversplits – Overdoing It?

A gymnast stretching to increase flexibility.
Image via Wikipedia

In my post my last post, Stretching Safely for Splits, I promised to go into more detail regarding my thoughts on oversplits. If you aren’t familiar, these are splits that go beyond 180 degrees (above the hips) and are usually achieved by stretching in a split with the legs supported by pillows, blocks, or chairs. I’ll reiterate that I don’t feel that there is anything wrong with working to achieve oversplits. There are healthy ways to go about striving for or achieving this level of flexibility. There are also a few things that I think students should consider before beginning a regimen that will get them there.

Are they necessary?

With all the emphasis on flexibility it may feel as though an oversplit is your only answer to achieving a beautiful grand jeté or pencheé. However, dance requires a moving, active flexibility. While oversplits (or splits in general) increase your range of motion, they do not improve strength and stability. Often when students are struggling to execute these moving splits, they may have sufficient flexibility but lack control. An oversplit is not much good to someone who is missing crucial pieces of the puzzle. Take even a portion of the time and energy directed toward stretching and flexibility and replace it with conscientious application of technique during class. Moving through your range of motion in practice is the best preparation for achieving the leaps and pencheé of your dreams. Without good placement, attention to line, stability, and power, all you’ve got with an oversplit is a parlor trick.

Are they worth it?

gymnastics flexibility

Image by Rick McCharles via Flickr

If anyone has conducted specific research on the joint/muscle health of gymnasts or others who specifically train and work oversplits, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Based on my understanding of joint health, there is greater potential for damage to joints, ligaments, and tendons when it comes to oversplits. This is especially true if you are “hanging” in the split from two raised surfaces – this is not a healthy way of achieving your goal and I cringe whenever I see it. It is extremely important that someone working toward oversplits spend equal (if not more) time on strengthening and stabilizing the hips and core of the body. If you ignore signals that you are pushing too hard or too far, you may be hindering or halting any current progress you’ve made in your flexibility. You may even be sacrificing joint stability and overall joint health, perhaps ending your career early or causing problems later in life… for a few measly degrees.

“Once a muscle has reached its absolute maximum length, attempting to stretch the muscle further only serves to stretch the ligaments and put undue stress upon the tendons (two things that you do not want to stretch). Ligaments will tear when stretched more than 6% of their normal length. Tendons are not even supposed to be able to lengthen. Even when stretched ligaments and tendons do not tear, loose joints and/or a decrease in the joint’s stability can occur (thus vastly increasing your risk of injury).” – runtheplanet.com

“When muscles are stretched beyond natural voluntary ranges of motion, the muscles and tendons are stretched unnaturally. Excessive stretching damages tissues and promotes inflammation” – Yang, Im, & Wang, 2005

Are they desirable?

In many ways an oversplit could be considered an asset. Remember though that most dancers aspire to more than just moving through a series of static positions (at least I hope they do). They aim to convey and communicate as well as wow or inspire. Choreographers have this same aim when they create dances and in most cases would prefer a dancer who can offer more than just incredible flexibility. Even audiences want more from their dancers – after the initial “wow” wears off, especially. So, I’ll repeat that an oversplit is not much good to someone who is missing crucial pieces of the puzzle like performance, strength, intelligence, artistry, technique. I’ll also mention that there are those, particularly in classical ballet, that find overextended leaps, arabesques, etc. downright incongruous with the aesthetics of the art form and dislike seeing these slip into the choreography. While removing limitations in range of motion can free the body for expression, it is important to show restraint and mindfulness in displaying this kind of freedom.

questionWhat Do You Think?

Do you like to see dancers utilizing this skill onstage?

How do you feel about dancers (recreational, pre-professional, or otherwise) training for oversplits?

Some folks utilize the power of gravity for oversplits. I’ve shared my view on this. What do you think? Is there a “right” way and a “wrong” way to stretch for oversplits?

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Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle Suzanne began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. Nichelle holds a BA in dance and is an instructor with more than 17 years experience. She covers dance performance in the Houston area as a freelance writer and balances daily life as a mom to two young children. In June 2012, Nichelle presented the whats, hows, and whys of blogging on a panel at the annual conference for Dance/USA, the national service organization for professional dance, to better equip artists and companies for engaging their audience and new readers through online communications and content.
Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle (admin)
Nichelle (admin)

Comments

  1. Great article. I feel it is very important for dancers to understand their anatomy. The purpose of muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. If a dancer understands the unique nature of the ligaments, tendons and muslces, how they work together and their unique differences; the approach to strength, balance and stretch would help secure a long career. Remember it is not just the quick rewards but the longevity of your career and ultimate enjoyment.

  2. Great post. When I looked at that first photo, though, I imagined ABT’s physical therapist Julie Daugherty cringing. Having said that, Julie would also prefer that dancers completely abandon the grand plie because of torque on the knee, while acknowledging that dancers will forever do grand plies. During our teacher training at ABT last summer, she made a couple of interesting points about stretching. First, she suggested that passive stretching–coming into the classroom and plopping into the splits, for example, or hefting a leg onto the bar and just hanging out there–should be avoided. An effective stretch, she says, actually engages the muscle during the stretch. Second, she urged us to never ask a student to hold a stretch longer than 60 seconds, and preferably less–20 to 30 seconds. And of course, the muscle should be plenty warm before asking it to stretch. (What I tell my young students about muscles is this: imagine you have just opened a new can of Play-Doh. When you plop it out of its can, it is cold and assumes the shape of the can; pull it, and it breaks. But after you’ve warmed it between your hands for a moment, it stretches instead of breaking. The same is true of muscle tissue.) After I returned home from the training, I found myself in a Pilates class where the instructor had twisted us into a pretzel for a whopping 2 minutes 15 seconds! Coming out of that stretch felt painful and downright dangerous to me. What Julie underscored is that, after a pretty short time, you reach a point of diminishing returns, and can actually damage and weaken the muscle.

    Occasionally Hilary Cartwright–co-creator of Gyrotonic, and former Royal Ballet soloist–shows some effective stretches targeting specific muscle groups, in Dance Spirit Magazine; there is one graphic showing how to do the splits (and how not to), as well as several other stretches (the “frog,” for example) that is so effective I framed and hung it on the wall in my girls’ changing room.

    I for one would be uncomfortable asking a student to work past 180 degrees using blocks or other props. As one who had several years of SAB-style training early on, I can attest to the hip damage that may not emerge until much later in adult life. And I would much rather see a gorgeous arabesque penchee with artistry behind it, even if it is not 180 degrees, than a trick. (And, depending on the choreography, I personally think a penchee that stretches past 180 degrees can be downright vulgar.)

    Also, insofar as the soft tissues and what can be pushed and what should not, I once heard a local chiropractor make an interesting analogy about ligaments: if you imagine a ligament as a plastic grocery bag, you understand that stretching the grocery bag means it will not resume its original shape. That’s pretty clear.

    I’m sure the issue you raise here will be long debated, and this post made me wonder whether I should be spending more time with some of my older students on splits; many thanks.

  3. Thank you both for your insightful responses! And Deb thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences and lessons for others to read here – some very rich and wonderful examples! I love the grocery bag analogy!!

  4. I think that the key is to have an oversplit supported solely by muscle. In other words, if you need gravity to achieve the oversplit, then it’s probably not all that healthy; however, if you can control your grand battement, grand jeté or other extensions while in an oversplit, then more power to ya!

    For me, personally, I have naturally overextended hips and thus, I have always had a slight oversplit. As a younger dancer, this didn’t bother me, but once I hit my late teen years, I started experiencing pains in my hips. Then, I began aerial dance on the fabric and the muscles around my hips gained strength exponentially over time. While with aerial, again, oversplits can be achieved without all the pieces of the puzzle, doing simple exercises focused on hip strengthening when on the fabric help build your strength while still increasing flexibility. That flexibility and strength has shown through to all my practiced dance forms on the ground as well!

    So, in all, I think that oversplits can be a great tool, but also agree that technique and control are the first priorities to building a long and healthy dance career.

    • There’s nothing unhealthy about using an external force (such as gravity or a partner) to achieve a stretch, even an over split.

      You speak of muscle ‘supporting’ a split. Muscles can support splits, in this case the muscles which are facing the earth support it.

      A muscle can enter a stretch under its own power through tension of the agonists. The easiest form of this is when they receive no opposition. For example, if someone were to lie on their side and attempt a front split, they would have essentially no gravitational resistance to it. The only things impeding them outside of the body would be inertia, the friction of the bottom leg against the floor, and probably some minor tension requirements in the abductor of the higher leg to keep it from adducting past the mid pelvis.

      A more difficult variation of stretching under the power of agonists (this is called active stretching) would be moving into a stretch whilst actually resisting outside forces keeping the muscles from stretching. For example, assuming a front split in mid-air, either by dangling via the arms or in mid-leap. In this case, gravity resists the front leg from hip flexing/knee extensing and the rear leg from hip hyperextension and knee flexion.

      Active stretching can be done statically (where you hold a stretch) or dynamically (where you enter into it briefly and are able to stretch more deeply due to utilizing momentum generated from the higher strength in the stronger position).

      Oversplits are not acquired merely through hip strength. Power lifters, who squat and deadlift immense weights, have far stronger hip muscles than any ballerina, yet are not necessarily very mobile. Strength is specific to range of motion, and tensing the muscles in a stretched position, where they must combat under-active insufficiency, is what inclines them to be stronger and more stable in those positions.

      Passive stretching (being stretched by gravity or a partner) can enhance gains in active stretching due to teaching the antagonists of a stretch to relax, and training them to become stronger. Vice versa is also true, active stretching can enhance passive stretching gains, because you train the muscles to tense in extremely short positions (where they are opposed by over-active insufficiency) which allows you to tense them to a greater degree during passive stretches and take advantage of reciprocal inhibition.

      Recipricol inhibition is usually not enough to overcome antagonist tension though, due to lack of strength (over-active insufficiency is difficult) and the brain trying to protect the antagonists from injury and being unable to get out of an extreme stretch. That’s why people train from both ends, taking advantage of both that phenomenon and the PNF phenomenon.

      • I’m loving this conversation! It’s so encouraging to hear the thoughtful comments that people out there have to offer.

        As Tyciol mentioned, PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation)is an excellent way to increase joint flexibility. An example of this would be having the student lie on his/her back with one leg extended in the air and one leg flat along the ground. With the help of a partner, the student contracts the quads for a 10-count and then releases the contraction while the partner deepens the stretch slightly. Then the contraction is repeated, then the deepening, and so on and so forth.

        I will look into some of these contraptions that have been invented for the purpose of acheiving and oversplit, and generally speaking using external force like gravity or a partner doesn’t appear to be dangerous PROVIDED you have sufficiently warmed-up and aren’t stretching to the point of pain.

        I think it’s important to decipher some of the science so that a student doesn’t interpret all of this as it being a green light to stretch way beyond their own range of motion. I touched on this a little in a similar post about stretching a couple months ago: http://danceadvantage.net/2010/06/17/stretching-before-class/

        As far as strength goes, every athletic discipline has a slightly different ratio of strength to flexibility. Runners who are really flexible often have difficulties because there is too much movement at their knee, ankle, and hip joints. Dance and gymnastics likely have the highest degree of flexibilty, but Nichelle is right that flexibility is only part of the equation and useless in the dancer who does not also posses, strength, poise, and technique.

        For all of the students and dance teachers out there, just remember two things about stretching:

        1) warm up, warm up, warm up
        2) stretching can feel uncomfortable, but it should never hurt.

        Thanks, Nichelle for continuing to provoke thoughtful conversation about dance!

        • The Two Commandments of stretching! Thanks for stating it so explicitly, Lauren. I’m pretty sure it can’t be said enough.

          Using gravity and force, is one thing. Using excessive gravity and force is another, and sometimes students (and even teachers) are not clear on or simply ignore the line of excess. They’ll dangle in an oversplit between two surfaces until they can no longer stand it. Or push and hold a dancer in an extreme position, telling them to ignore the pain. And in the end, though I know pushing human physical limits is part of the progression of the art form of dance, I continue to wonder out loud ‘How exactly does such extreme flexibility make someone a better dancer?’

          It doesn’t. And it probably only makes a dancer more “marketable” in certain instances – in most cases average flexibility (average for a dancer) is enough.

          Flexibility is one of those things in dance that it’s easy to get obsessive about. It’s measurable and controllable – unlike most of dance which is unending process and subjective aesthetic. But don’t risk injury. Warm-up. Don’t inflict pain. There, I said it once more for good measure. :)

  5. Well, dance is my passion and I have trained in dance and gymnmastics scince very young, and am now training as an aerialist and contortionist. Obviously, for contortion, you have to be overly flexible, and naturally, oversplits is essential in the long run. But, having said that, we have a very specific way of stretching, similar to yoga, and we know when we have exceeded our limit. And most Contortionists’ joints are fine, although I worry about those who ocassionaly do dislocations, as those are not taught so much any more because of the damage they do. I think that as long as you are EXTREMELY careful, and know the right way to stretch, you are okay to do these. I agree that unless it is in your “comfort” zone, you should never hold a stretch for more that 30 seconds, but obviously, if it is in your “comfort zone” it is not a stretch any more.

    Overall, I think that dancers should watch the way that they stretch because they could cut their career short if not listening to their body.

  6. Meggie and Peggie (sorry that made me giggle), thanks for stopping by!

    Meggie, you concisely pulled together the essence of how I feel about oversplits. And, I can imagine how aerial dance has strengthened you for your “earthly” work – aerial is a beautiful and very challenging way to work.

    I’ve found a lot of young dancers (particularly in the 10-15 age range) tend to go after those oversplits with a lot of zeal, sometimes forgetting or just not realizing that they need to strengthen too. I cringe at the youtube videos and dance forum photos of girls using gravity to force their body into the oversplit.

    Peggie, contortion is itself an artform and I would say it has enjoyed increased attention over the last decade or so. Contemporary dance choreography tends to borrow and merge with other disciplines – those blurred lines are part of what I love about dance.

    Because a lot of studios are not necessarily innovating but emulating innovators, they see this crossover and want to try it on for themselves. Sometimes things are lost in translation and the methods which have been developed for that particular discipline are not properly observed. Perhaps this is occurring with dance and contortion. An analogy: It’s possible to pass the driver’s test without taking a class but maybe you miss important things like rules of the road or car maintenance which, in the end, make driving the car not such a good idea.

    Also, thanks for making the very good point about “comfort zone.” To further illustrate for readers, a dancer who already has their oversplit, a 180 split would no longer be stretching so sitting in this position would not really be a problem. I’ve always had to work for splits but I don’t have to “stretch” to put my face in my knees whereas someone else may be the opposite – it’s all relative.

  7. I think oversplits training is perfectly okay as long as the person trying oversplits goes as slowly as they have to to acheive it comfortably. I also think assisted stretching is good.

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